With dozens of disability advocates watching from the gallery, the S.C. House voted to add $173.6 million of federal money to the state budget to restore proposed cuts to health care services.
The 96-6 vote was the first major decision during what is expected to be a week of floor debate on the House's proposed $5.1 billion state spending plan. Congress has yet to give final approval to the money that extends a more generous federal health care match through June 2011, but House lawmakers are convinced the money will eventually get to S.C.
The money means that state agencies can: Continue in-home services for the disabled; scrap a proposed cap of three prescriptions per month for Medicaid patients; continue funding for preventive health care programs such as community clinics and Welvista, which works with pharmaceutical companies to provide free drugs to those in need; set aside $27 million for next year, when the state will face a more than $1 billion budget hole when federal stimulus money ends.
"We are in a much, much better place," said Department of Disabilities and Special Needs spokeswoman Lois Park Mole. "Our services are in a much better place."
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House Democrats said restoring the cuts was a top priority, and said S.C. Republicans were balancing the state budget before the federal money was approved.
"We will not allow the Republican leadership in this state to balance the budget on the back of the most vulnerable," House minority leader Harry Ott, D-Calhoun, said.
A half-dozen Republicans voted against spending the new federal money, arguing the House should not commit the money until it is in hand.
"This is a wish list of what we hope Washington will do," said Rep. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor. "We don't want to promise people something we don't have." But House Ways and Means chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, said all signs point to Congress approving the money. The budget, he said, only spends the money if it is approved.
"It's not a guarantee by any stretch of the imagination," Cooper said. "I'd call it a contingency plan."
The House also voted Monday to increase the Department of Juvenile Justice budget by $10.5 million more than was originally proposed. The money allows 107 agency employees to keep their jobs, Rep. Annette Young, R-Dorchester, said, and would keep open its wilderness camps.
There were few disagreements during the first day of House budget debate. Issues yet to come include a decision on raising the state's cigarette tax and eliminating the Education Oversight Committee.
The House Ways and Means committee included a 30-cents-a-pack cigarette tax increase, but a number of lawmakers will push for a larger increase and to devote the money to health care.
Democrats also said they would propose new ways to fund schools. Two lawmakers, Reps. Mike Anthony, D-Union, and Jackie Hayes, D-Dillon, said they would propose raising the state sales tax by 1 percentage point to erase a $104 million cut to K-12 funding and use additional money to fund an income tax credit.
Rep. Ted Vick, D-Chesterfield, said he would eliminate a 2006 penny increase to the sales tax dedicated to school funding, in exchange for a statewide property tax on homes worth more than $250,000.